Getting a Handle on the News – Why It Matters

news swirlDoes the world seem messier than usual? Stories about ISIS, the Syrian refugee crises, police and gang shootings, the US Presidential campaign, terrorist attacks, drought, epidemic outbreaks, and unease in the Ukraine, North Korea, Palestine, Iraq, and Israel advance the perception that the world is worse off than ever before. The world feels more unsettled than usual, but is that quantifiably true?

In December 2014 Slate authors, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, asked this question and concluded, “The World is Not Falling Apart.” To determine whether the world was coming apart at the seams, they conducted an in-depth study of world-wide statistics in the following areas: homicides, violence against women, violence against children, democratization vs. autocracy, genocide & mass killings of civilians and war. In each category, the trend lines are headed downward. Based on statistics and hard numbers, the world today is actually safer and more peaceful in each of these categories than it has been in the last sixty years.

Why doesn’t this quantifiable truth seem real? Maybe it’s the inescapable 24/7news that keeps the hard stuff front and center. Or the invasion of links to world and personal tragedies in the once-benign Facebook feed of kittens, babies and family gatherings. Or the transformation of the news into entertainment as presciently predicted in the 1976 classic movie, Network. Or the barrage of news when pumping gas or waiting for a flight that makes us think the world is messier than usual. Whatever the cause, the net result of continual exposure to disasters and tragedies is pessimism and anxiety.

Studies after 9/11 showed that viewers who watched the continual replays of the collapsing Trade Towers were generally more stressed and distraught than those who viewed them fewer times. Women and children are affected most, but it impacts everyone. Watching the same video footage over and over indelibly presses the scene into our mushy cerebrum and traumatizes us over and over. There’s a reason it’s called a news feed. We ingest what we read, absorb it into our system and are influenced by the quality or lack of nutrients. Just as someone determined to lose weight counts the calories, we need to think about our news diet. Are we eating all day long? Consuming junk? Caught in the latest acai berry trend? Obsessed with trending arrows and hashtags, likes and shares? Addicted to the rush from following breaking stories?

Awareness of the onslaught of news and our rate of consumption makes total separation appealing, but it’s neither an attainable goal nor healthy. While trend lines slope downward, they aren’t at 0. We need the news to remind us that work remains as injustice, hatred, and evil still lurk. We need the stories to spark us to volunteer, start an organization, send an email, or research the issue further. We would hurt ourselves and others if we disengaged entirely. If cold turkey or constant connection aren’t beneficial, how do we find the balance between uninformed and overwhelmed?

To stop the news balloon from blocking the sun and triggering Eeyore thinking, I’ve found the following tips helpful:

  • Avoid the news until later in the morning so it doesn’t set the tone for the day.
  • Be selective before entering the never-ending chain of links in online articles.
  • Consider whether the source has been vetted or is the story more personal outrage like the Starbucks Christmas cup fiasco.
  • Help others by limiting what you “share”, especially early commentary on an issue. Too many times I’ve shared and later regretted it when the claim was debunked–like the use of Roundup as the cause for the rise in gluten intolerance.
  • Notice my emotional reaction, and pull away when fear and anger take over. Unless those emotions propel me into helpful action, mere fretting wastes valuable energy.
  • When now seems the worst time to be alive, it’s time to pull away and re-calibrate.

The world is messy, people’s lives are messy, but that reality can’t be the main lens that frames our perspective.

Because we aren’t passive recipients, because the news has a powerful impact on our mindset, when we make wise choices in consumption, the world will look brighter and tidier than we imagined. Give it a try.

The Empty Chairs

an-empty-chairIn this week after Thanksgiving we’re still aglow with positive posts and tweets of family meals and gatherings. Long tables decorated to make Martha Stewart envious; pies perfect enough to tempt Paula Deen ask for the recipe; and over-achievers getting a head start on Christmas decorating. It’s wonderful to celebrate and express gratitude, it’s good for our soul and healthy for our psyche. We want to share in each other’s happiness and blessings, yet we also need to make space for the empty chairs.

There are always several. Maybe work schedules interfered or travel plans went awry. A tough medical diagnosis or an illness, misunderstandings or hurt feelings, multiple invitations or accommodating the in-laws kept some away. Maybe we’ve lost touch and drifted apart, or someone moved. Or maybe there was a death, and the chair filled only with memories of guffaws and a crooked smile looms large.

Kathleen Norris writes in Cloister Walk of a long-forgotten writer who said that America’s true religions are optimism and denial. These “things will get better”, “nothing is wrong” defense mechanisms carry us far as a nation, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of them. But they aren’t the tools we need to deal with and move toward acceptance of the inevitable empty chairs.

For that we need lament and grief – neither of which will bring you a large following in any land or era. Eat. Love. Pray” entices more than “Cry. Weep. Mourn.” Motivational speakers fill arenas, but a reading of multiple lament Psalms will empty one. Job’s three friends wearied of his sackcloth wardrobe and ashes mousse, and Paul mourned when everyone deserted him (2 Timothy 4:16.) Jesus wrestled alone in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion when Peter, James and John fell asleep after he’d invited them to pray nearby.

Grieving, mourning and walking alongside those in that place looks to be acquired skill, not something that comes naturally. We’d rather push ahead and deny the hurt than sit on the dung heap and scrape boils like Job. His friends wanted him to get up and get moving, but he choose to sit and feel the pain of stolen oxen, camels and donkeys, murdered servants, burned sheep, and the death of his sons and daughters. He sat in his unrelenting pain, started legal proceedings against God, doubted he would see happiness again, and wished he hadn’t been born. He had a string of bad days and friends with bad advice to make it worse.

But Job lived what counselors teach — the path to emotional and spiritual health is through the pain. We need to acknowledge it, not deny it or paint over it with an optimism brush. When we rail and cry out against it, that’s when we’re open enough to find God in it. It may take the equivalent of thirty-seven chapters like it did Job, and our “why’s” won’t be fully answered, but we maybe we’ll move to the point where we’re able to say along with Job, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5).

Job knew about empty chairs, we all know about empty chairs. Job took the less-traveled path and learned to allow the pain to lead him to praise and trust in his God; we can, too. At the next holiday gathering, recognize the empty chairs and be open to the pain they spark. Acknowledge it, sit with it; welcome the hurt, grieve the loss. You might find God has been sitting there all along.

Know Who’s in Your Cloud? Time to Learn Some Names

cloud of witnesses

“All Saints” by Fra Angelico

The writer of Hebrews beat Apple to the cloud concept by a few millennia. More than a binary data storage bank for easy access, the cloud in Hebrews 12:1 is composed of the faithful who’ve successfully completed the project. Their presence affirms that the journey is doable, the race can be finished, the suffering can be endured, the prize is worthy of the challenge. “Look,” they’re saying, “we did it, you can too.”

It’s time to tap into this neglected cloud.

This fall I’ve been teaching a class on the History of Christianity – a low-key, in-a-home study with a dozen women who are bravely walking the path from the first century to the rumblings of the Reformation with me. Our backgrounds vary as do our current churches of choice, but our common ancestry brings us together, and the study unveils our common foundation.

A month in and we can name a section of spectators who willingly sacrificed their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ. Not just the apostles, but Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch whose tales of bravery in the face of death are updated and replayed weekly in the national and international news. Then there are the theologians and church leaders who wrestled with the two natures (fully human/fully divine) question of the identity of Jesus Christ. They wrote lengthy analyses, fought heretics on paper, and sat on Councils that shaped and wrote the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds we still recite. People like Athanasius, Tertullian, Jerome, Iranaeus, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Pope Leo I, and the hundreds of bishops who sought to stay true to the Apostles’ teaching and experience. There are thousands more whose names are lost to historians.

Denominations that follow a practice of preparation for baptism or confirmation access this cloud more than others. Catechism classes are a wonderful opportunity to teach heritage and history, and to give the reasons behind tradition and practices. These glimpses of the deeply-rutted trail back to the cross teach about the cloud of witnesses the author of Hebrews’ promises are spectators of our journey today.

Unfortunately, decisional evangelism as commonly practiced in non-denominational churches and evangelistic crusades, erases the trail and shortens the timeline to you and God in this moment.The over-emphasis on your decision in the present, neglects the chorus, the crowd of spectators, the spiritual ancestors who’ve walked this road, faced a similar choice, continued on the journey and are now cheering.

On one level the spiritual journey to Christ has a solo component – there is an individual choice to make.Yet there’s always a community of breath-holders watching that first baby step of faith and all that follow. As David A. deSilva writes, “the author [of Hebrews] wants the Christians to see themselves surrounded by the host of the faithful in every age, who have run the race with excellence and whose lives bear testimony to the reality of the prize for which we all strive together.”[1] The spectators that make up the cloud know it’s a hard road as Jesus promised his disciples in Mark 8:34-38, but they also know the joy of the finished race. When we learn their names and hear their stories, they are the ones we don’t want to let down. Plus their stores are the ones that encourage us to persevere.

Sure, the history of Christians is full of scoundrels, embezzlers, greedy, hungry for power individuals who used religion, faith and Christianity to further their own interests. But let’s focus our gaze on the faithful who learned from Jesus and the apostles how to run the race. Hebrews 11:1-39 provides synopses of the lives of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and many others. Now we can add two thousand years of stories of the faithful and extend the list.

They’re the cloud of cheering spectators we need on the tough days when we think we’re walking alone or running an endless race.There’s unlimited storage available, it’s time to find out who’s in your cloud.

__________________________________________________________

An excellent resource is a book by Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.

[1] David A. deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 429-431.

How Comfortable Are You With Questions?

doubtful“There wasn’t space to ask questions or express doubts in my high school youth group, so I pulled away from the church,” said the young mom now married to an evangelical pastor. “I wasn’t content being spoon fed verses from the Bible and expected to blindly accept them as sufficient answers to my questions. I was dubious of a twenty-something youth pastor spouting pat responses I wasn’t sure he understood or believed.”

Her faith pilgrimage wasn’t the first one to describe the “No Questions Allowed” roadblock. It’s common in Christian circles whether a church has a tradition of confirmation classes or catechism or a walk to the front of the church as an acknowledgment of faith. Questions about the Bible, how God acts in the world, who God is, who Jesus is, how you can believe in something you can’t see are fair to ask, particularly for young people in the midst of identity formation.

Why do we tend to back away or become defensive in response to genuine, searching questions? Maybe we want to avoid conflict or reveal we don’t know. Maybe it’s an issue we struggle with, and we’d rather portray a solid faith than a squishy one. Maybe we think we haven’t done a good job teaching and explaining if someone still has questions. But for someone to hold tightly to a set of beliefs over the long haul, they need to own them rather than be indoctrinated. They need to think them through, test their seaworthiness, and declare they’re a boat they will take out to sea.

Parents have high expectations for a high school youth pastor’s ability to get their kid on track. As an empty-nester, I volunteered for several years with high school youth groups, and heard more than one parent lament the spiritual life of their junior or senior. They were convinced that all would be lost if their son or daughter’s faith wasn’t rock-solid before they started college or work. Once launched and outside the protective bubble of home, they feared their kids would be part of the 70% who turn their backs on the Christian faith. Rightly so as multiple studies report.

The preventative measures often taken are to inject teens with knowledge and as many Bible verses as possible. Stay upbeat; don’t let people express doubts. They could be contagious and sink the group. Allow a few questions, and supply a definitive answer even when there isn’t one. Use black and white language to discuss beliefs; keep away from gray terminology. Unfortunately this “safe” approach doesn’t satisfy; it drives away. It doesn’t work for adults either.

In a rush to appear authoritative and certain, we miss the opportunity to equip others to tolerate the ambiguity inherent in faith and spirituality. Christianity is a blend of essential, foundational truths—orthodoxy, and a slew of variations as to how that is lived out—orthopraxy. Christians firmly accept the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and yet vary widely in the observance of baptism and communion, for example. Mystery and subtlety are woven throughout Christianity and the Bible; nothing is fully explainable, and God himself is incomprehensible. To live comfortably in the space between the contradictions of firm belief and unknowing requires maturity and a developed taste for ambiguity.

A high tolerance for ambiguity is defined as the ability to make a decision or take action before having all the answers and is regarded as a sign of spiritual maturity. If there’s anything that faith requires more often than an old-timer believer would like to admit, it’s the ability to follow God, to be a disciple of Jesus, with only the first five feet of the path illuminated. Faith involves a decision to keep going when the “why’s” go unanswered, when the “how’s” aren’t in a manual, when the “when’s” are nothing but blank calendar pages.

Whatever role we play–parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, teacher, volunteer, coach—we have an opportunity to create a safe place for honest questions. In our small group discussions, the young ladies were initially uncomfortable when I encouraged them to think work through their doubts. Their questions and struggles were a sign that they were thinking, wrestling and taking Christianity’s claims seriously enough to expend mental energy, something I applauded. Whether the freedom to question helped them form their beliefs, I may never know; at least we didn’t erect roadblocks.

The young mom found someone comfortable with questions to mentor her during college and her thirst for Jesus and the church was reignited. For others it takes decades of testing different faiths, trying on no faith, and collecting life experiences before they turn back to Christianity. Some never do. Making room for doubts won’t keep everyone in the faith, but when they’re encouraged and respected, wanderers might return sooner and others never leave. Growth and maturity are essential to cope well with the inevitable gray squares of life; helping each other through the question patches rather than avoiding them strengthens us all.

 

Learning from the Changing Tide

50461 PR beach

Beach in Puerto Rico

When we arrived at Ogunquit Beach in southern Maine, we noticed the chairs, coolers and beach umbrellas were grouped yards from the water. Our group of Midwesterners opted to take advantage of the sandy real estate and set up camp closer to the waves. We frolicked for several hours, and relished being away from Boston for the day.

Mid-afternoon one of the guys in our group waved his arms and called frantically from the beach, “Hurry, come get your stuff. The water is rising!” We dashed out of the water, grabbed towels and sandals, and joined the experienced Easterners where they’d been sitting all along. I didn’t hear any snickers; their knowing looks didn’t require a soundtrack.

Chlorinated water contained in a concrete hole in the ground was my childhood swimming environment–central Illinois being short on saline shorelines. I swam all day and never worried that my towel would float away. My major concern was the adult swim. Every hour on the hour, the lifeguards stood on the platforms around their chairs and blew their whistles. Then the loudspeaker squawked, “Adult swim. Anyone under 18 must exit the pool. Now.” Bored and hungry, we lined up to buy Dreamsicles, popsicles, ice cream sandwiches and frozen candy bars. Some kids watched the clock and got in line before the whistle, but I couldn’t see that far without my glasses.

The ocean follows a timetable, too–one governed by the pull of the moon. The tide rushes in, and rustles over the sands, The water constantly moves, and the depth varies from hour to hour.

Even after decades of experience, I expect life to behave more like water in a swimming pool than on an ocean beach. I like the 4’6” marker painted along the side in large black numbers. I like being able to throw a towel on a chaise lounge confident it will still be there later. But like the tide, individuals, relationships, organizations, sports teams, churches and institutions fluctuate.

They slide from flourishing to struggling to flourishing to struggling, back and forth, back and forth. When sales decline, losses exceed wins, the sand dries out, friends move away, relationships end, the towel gets wet and my left sandal drifts away, the movement is unwelcome. Even when I know it’s a phase and flourishing will eventually return, I push back. I attempt to manage my circumstances like water in a pool, but my control invariably gets sucked away like the sand under my feet. When I finally relax and let the change filter like sifted sand between my fingers, when I can enjoy the saltwater’s shifting course, then change feels natural–even welcome. 

The author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). If he’d lived near the ocean, he might have added, “A time for the tide to come in, and a time for it to go out.” For us swimming pool gurus, learning to rise and fall with the flow is an acquired skill. Those who’ve spent time at the beach with sand pails, shovels and tide charts have a head start.

One Who Fell and Put the Pieces Back Together Well

The news story first broke in June 1987; the one when my former senior pastor confessed to an adulterous affair. Assemblies of God pastor, Jim Bakker, received the mainstream press’ attention that year for his alleged sexual misconduct and financial misdealings, but Gordon MacDonald’s admission rocked the conservative Protestant world and mine.

MacDonald pastored one of the largest churches in the Boston metropolitan area when we moved to Massachusetts for my husband’s legal studies. From the few strong evangelical churches in the area, we selected Grace Chapel in Lexington as our home church. For two years we listened to Gordon’s exemplary preaching on Sundays. For one year I and hundreds of women benefitted from his wife’s teaching leadership of the weekly women’s bible study.

In 1984 Gordon resigned and became the minister-at-large for the relief organization, World Vision. Little over a year later he took over the Presidency of the collegiate student ministry organization, InterVarsity Fellowship (IVF). While at IVF, an anonymous letter sent to religious publishers exposed the illicit relationship; MacDonald admitted to the affair and resigned.

Jimmy Bakker’s fall from his highly visible perch on the PTL (Praise the Lord) television program and network seemed an inherent, but distant, risk of flying high. His was a case of fame and personal power inflating the non-existent invisibility screen some prominent leaders expect to protect them. When it doesn’t, they feverishly spew hot air to re-inflate and backpedal like a rabid spin instructor. Tammy Faye’s long eyelashes added a measure of comic relief to the sad drama of a man of God trying to save face like a politician caught in a sexting scandal.

But Gordon MacDonald? He spoke at Wheaton College’s special services week in spring 1976 before I matriculated, and the series spawned the then-popular book, Magnificent Marriage. For years I had looked up to him, trusted his guidance, read his wise words, and gladly called him pastor. We never met, but his humble heart and desire to know God shone through his preaching and writing.

but we know prominent Christian leaders aren’t trees that fall silently in the woods.

The admitted affair ran from late 1984 to early 1985, and Gordon initiated a restoration process before his misconduct became public. Later he commented that he wished the situation could have been dealt with in private, but we know prominent Christian leaders aren’t trees that fall silently in the woods. He repented and confessed, then requested and received discipline from a council of church elders who held him accountable for his behavior and relationships.

After the affair was disclosed, Gordon demonstrated a humble and contrite heart like the broken King David in Psalm 51. He didn’t take a defensive posture, try to inflate the shield, blame the other woman, blame his wife for not meeting his needs, minimize his culpability, claim he was having a mid-life crisis, or try to wriggle out of the truth. He faced it head on, admitted his sin, and choose a path toward potential restoration of ministry. For two years he moved out of the spotlight, pulled back from publishing and preaching, and spent time with God. He pursued the spiritual disciplines to help him examine his heart, understand his weaknesses, and accept his humanity.

broken mirror reflectionIn Rebuilding Your Broken World, he describes the foundational principle for restoration as “the premise that individuals who have misbehaved must present themselves before God in openness and acknowledge responsibility and accountability” (italics in the original.) He expounds on eighteen “Bottom Line” principles to address in order to be restored and finish the race well. I thought Gordon’s response would become the Christian norm, but I’ve not seen anyone follow this path since.

No matter the patterns we bring from our family of origin, our personality, the circumstances, or the relational dynamics, falling on our knees in repentance and confession is the only way to find true healing and restoration. Politicians can, and admittedly we expect them to, plug in the public relations machine, spin a tune, and claim like comedian Flip Wilson, “The Devil made me do it.” They aren’t expected to go the “accept responsibility” route, but men and women of God are.

The Bible doesn’t sugarcoat our human frailty and propensity to go astray or let it slide when it happens.  Read the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 and 12; then study David’s expression of remorse and guilt in Psalm 51 penned after the prophet Nathan told a heart-rending story of a poor man’s single ewe lamb to convict him of sin. That’s our pattern, our model, and Gordon MacDonald eventually followed it.

God in his grace and mercy has restored him to ministry. In 1989, MacDonald became pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Manhattan, and returned to Grace Chapel in 1993 as Senior Pastor, though without unanimous support of the congregation. He and his wife, Gail, now in their 70’s, continue to invest in the lives of younger people through an intensive discipleship ministry held in their home. Gordon speaks, writes, and travels the world to help others become aware of their vulnerability to sin and finish well.

MacDonald gave in to temptation in the one area he felt the most secure–his relationships. His dalliance was a painful way to unveil his Achilles heel, and it cost him–like David whose infant son with Bathsheba died, and whose son, Absalom, publicly lay with David’s many wives. But MacDonald has reaped the long-term benefits of facing the painful truth, confessing sin, making amends, and relying on God’s grace to restore relationships.

Each time a news blurb reveals a prominent Christian leader’s abuse of power, pedophilia, unscrupulous financial dealings, sexual affairs, addictions or whatever sin snared them, I pray they’ll choose the healthy trail less travelled. Few will, but we all win when they do.

The Power of Forgiveness on Display in Charleston

emmanuel AME churchThere’s power, mighty power, in the declarations of forgiveness made by the relatives and friends of Dylann Roof’s murder victims. Less than forty-eight hours after Roof opened fire in a Wednesday night prayer meeting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC killing nine, he heard, “I forgive you, my family forgives you” from the grandson of one of the victims. It was the echo of Jesus’ words spoken on the cross resounding two thousand years later.

One national network news broadcaster struggled to describe the day’s happenings. Twenty-one year old Dylann Roof, flanked by two heavily armed security guards, listened without expression  to the sorrow and pain of those with emotional holes in their hearts. Their family members lay in the morgue with physical holes where his bullets shattered their bodies, and via video they let Roof know he had killed beautiful people. They were loving, generous, welcoming people, not merely black faces–they had names.

In the bond hearing, a setting where words of vengeance, anger, pain, outrage, bitterness, and retaliation were expected, the watching world heard words of compassion and forgiveness intermingled with the grief.  The vocabulary of prayer meetings, religious sanctuaries, and the Bible invaded the courtroom. That was the point when confusion flowed across the broadcaster’s face, and justifiably so.

When every inch of your being screams in agony, when there are no more tears because the weeping has moved to the soul, who can think of forgiveness?  Who in the midst of profound pain and sorrow can look beyond themselves and offer forgiveness to the very one that caused the heartache? The kind of people who go to prayer meetings and welcome strangers. They’re the ones who know they have been forgiven by God and can extend that forgiveness to others. They are living reverberations of the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us.”

This isn’t the “forgive and forget” type of forgiveness; it’s questionable whether that is even possible. Those who claim remembering misdeeds means we haven’t forgiven probably haven’t experienced hard-core injustice. The abused child or woman, the college student drugged and raped, the wrongfully convicted inmate, the friends and family of a murder victim can’t and shouldn’t forget. Without a memory of the hurt, you can’t celebrate the healing.

palm branch crossNo, this is the “forgive and let go” type of forgiveness; the kind that frees the anger within and prevents bitterness from taking root. It’s the kind that knows refusing to forgive hurts the one with the white-knuckle grip the most. It means letting go of the right to “repay evil for evil” or to “take revenge”; it means feeding our enemies and giving them something to drink. It means not letting evil win, but overcoming it with good (Romans 12:17-21). It’s a forgiveness that costs, like Jesus choosing to lay down his life for the forgiveness of sins (Romans 5:6-8).

Those who spoke words of forgiveness within days of a senseless tragedy demonstrated the power of the gospel in a deeply tangible way. This act of hatred will soon fade from the news headlines, but may we long remember that it is the healing balm of forgiveness that overcomes evil with good.

The Secret to Strength and Growth – It’s Not What You Think It Is

men weight liftingHang around a health club, and you’ll meet the die-hards. The ones you don’t talk to for fear of breaking their focus. The ones with a list of their upper body, lower body, cardio, interval training, strength and flexibility workouts ready when you ask. The ones who can tell you how many years it’s been since they missed more than a day of exercise. The ones without an ounce of fat. Yeah, I’ve envied them, too.

To attain a level of fitness requires effort, and it comes at a price. When we strenuously exert ourselves physically, our body’s energy storehouse is ransacked, we lose fluids, and muscle tissue fibers are torn. It seems logical to push the same muscles hard on consecutive days as science has shown it’s the breaking down that leads to greater strength and endurance.

All well and good, but if the body doesn’t have time to regenerate itself and repair the damage caused by physical exertion, progress stops. We think it’s the relentless pushing and striving to achieve that makes Olympic champions and die-hard gym rats. Actually it leads to injuries and overtraining—that point when you’re tired and sore for days after your workout.

The real secret to strength and growth? It’s counterintuitive–rest. It’s taking a break, one more substantial than eight hours of sleep. Depending on the situation, it might be three or four days, it might be a month. Without it, the body can’t recuperate and patch up the muscle tears and depleted storehouses. Ripping more fibers in the same muscles you taxed yesterday isn’t helping, it’s hurting you.  When training and rest are regularly out of balance, fitness levels actually decline.

When we’re used to regular work-outs and have a goal in sight, it’s hard to rest. It’s true whether we’re training for a marathon or slogging through rehab. We feel like slackers with idle hands ready for the devil’s workshop. We miss the adrenaline fix, that competitive spot in our solar plexus  pleads for food, and our mind plays host to an ongoing debate between “Don’t stop; don’t be a quitter” and “I’m exhausted.”

Today’s physiological science substantiates the need our bodies have for rest; a model set in place as early as God’s institution of the Sabbath in Genesis 1 and 2. Scripture’s not just about rest; Paul used the athletic metaphor regularly in his writings about the Christian life, about soul and spirit (and body) matters. For example, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” Or, “Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one gets the prize?”*

What’s true for our bodies is true for our souls; true for our spirits. They’re interwoven, and all three need rest. All three need time for restoration. It’s easy to overtrain our physical body; it’s twice as easy to overtrain our souls and our spirits, and twice as hard to detect.  If we sprain an ankle, others will notice, but our souls’ limping will be invisible. We probably don’t notice when our soul/spirit reserves are running low, but we need to develop an inventory. We are wise when we take the lessons gathered from physiological expertise and apply them to our interior experience.

When I’m noodling through a problem, whether it’s personal or a formatting battle with Microsoft Word, my tendency is to push and relentlessly pursue a solution. If my to-do plate is piled high, a break is not in the stack. Yet that would be the best thing for my mind, my heart and my soul. Small breaks every 60-90 minutes help replenish, but there’s still a need to set aside longer periods for restoration.

What can that look like? One friend schedules quarterly silent retreats for herself and her church; another spends thirty minutes a day in silence and solitude. One woman listens to praise music and spends the evening journaling her thoughts and prayers; another paddles her kayak on the lake or takes long walks. One pastor regularly joins a monastic community for a week and follows their Divine Offices of prayer and study; another schedules a sabbatical month every few years.

The battle to claim space for soul and spirit rest mimics the battle for physical rest, and the results do, too. It will be a challenge, but it’s the counter-intuitive secret to strength and growth we all need to know—and do.

*Galatians 5:7, I Corinthians 9:24

Finding Hope on the Wings of Butterflies and Birds

In the middle of a May week full of parties and ceremonies to commemorate achievement and new beginnings, I received notice of a friend’s death. The wedding date was saved months ago, the ordination service announced weeks ago, and my friend, a doctoral student, targeted this graduation ceremony two years ago. But Kendall’s funeral wasn’t penciled in, he didn’t know his 54-year-old heart would quit last week.

Into a time of balloons, cakes, cheers, smiles and forward-facing optimism landed this backward-facing service filled with damp cheeks, black clothing and wads of Kleenex. To move from celebrating longed-for transitions to a remembrance of the final transition was like the jerk of a wooden roller coaster when the chain grabs the underside of your car at the base of the steep incline. The track rises ahead and you know this section is part of the journey, but the sudden motion and the gears grinding still surprises and sharpens the senses.

At the graveside, time slowed and the brain registered details in HD. Family members and the elderly sat in two rows of green-velour draped chairs alongside the elevated casket. Splays of flowers on the casket lid infused the color dissipated by the light gray skies, and the song of a love-hungry bird mingled with and occasionally drowned out the pastor’s words. Perched high in a nearby tree whose leaves needed more warm days before they’d open, Mr. Crooner sang, unaffected by the crowd and solemn service below.

two butterfliesThroughout the observance, two butterflies slalomed among the stooped shoulders like dancing shards of light from a stained glass window. We stood with bowed heads and sorrowful hearts, and they swooped and twirled in search of springtime nectar. We had stopped our routines to gather and honor this kind soul who encouraged others and loved God and his creation, and God sent his creatures to join us.

King David’s vignettes from Psalm 103, read at the funeral home, played at the outdoor screening room. The open grave spoke, “You are dust; your mortal life is like grass. You flourish briefly like a flower until the wind blows away its memory.” The songbird provided the soundtrack of praises to the Lord, and the butterflies a Disney touch. The open Bible reminded, “Your life has been redeemed from the pit, and God’s love is as high as these gray skies above the springtime earth.” And the mourners’ compassion for the widow and fatherless son mirrored the Father’s compassion.

We wept knowing Kendall’s youth won’t be restored like the eagle’s in this lifetime; there won’t be a Lazarus incident in Illinois this weekend. But in the lush cemetery dotted with stone markers of end, death, and finitude, faith, hope and love made an appearance. Invisible at times through our pain and grief and loss, they are with us everywhere and in all things–sometimes disguised as a songbird or a butterfly.

Whose Words Do You Treasure?

old book opened“Who are some of your favorite authors?” the seminary student inquired of the guest speaker, a veteran ministry leader. “The dead ones,” she replied.

She went on to explain, “It’s easy to write a book when you’re on the upswing of ministry growth and things are going well. When you’re in the middle of success others will listen to you. But I prefer to read their books after they’ve died, when I can know how their life turned out. Did they remain faithful to the gospel? What were the long-term results of their ministry? Did they build others up or damage them? Were they tireless workers to the end like John Stott or C.S. Lewis or Dorothy Sayers or Dallas Willard? Those are the authors I want to read.”

Her comments transported me to two recent funerals. Cancer struck my friend in his mid-40’s and ravaged his body within eighteen months. He was the first person to ask for a book recommendation. A voracious reader across a range of fields, he was eager to learn, look at issues from another perspective, and humble (though opinionated) in his convictions. He’d served on the mission field, on the staff of a suburban American church, and as a field representative for an international mission agency. At his core, he longed to see people around the world come to faith, and constantly thought about how to contextualize the gospel and reach more souls.

A dedicated family man who wouldn’t live to see his children graduate or walk down the aisle, he treasured the moments he’d already had and the present ones without fretting about what the ones he wouldn’t. Not that he didn’t grieve, but the dark days couldn’t extinguish his light and love of life. Through his final weeks, he lived beyond his circumstances with a deep concern for the souls of others.

I’d known the seventy-something woman in the casket for over thirty years. We hadn’t been close, but family occasions kept us in contact. As her relatives reminisced, it struck me– in that box lay the same woman I’d met decades ago. Burdened by an impoverished past and a life which hadn’t met her standards, she hadn’t changed her approach to life, her way of reacting to life’s inevitable challenges, or her methods of handling conflict. Physically she’d aged; emotionally and psychologically she’d clung to over-expectant dreams that disappointed early and often.. Creative and sensitive, the shadows from her past blocked the expression of her gifts. She walked through increasingly dark and lonely days, and wouldn’t look beyond them.

Both of them experienced challenging and painful situations over many years, and taught me a great deal. The one whose advice and example I want to follow is the one who never lost his desire to grow or his thankfulness for what God had provided. He lived his life well to his final days; his are the words I treasure,